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Bill Cosby's To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With

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This story was written by Adam Frucci and originally appeared in mental_floss magazine as part of our 101 Masterpieces series. Download our new iPad app and get a free issue!

When Bill Cosby peeked out from behind the curtain at Cleveland’s Public Auditorium, he saw a performer’s nightmare. The 10,000-seat venue was the biggest the young comic had ever played, and minutes before showtime it was rife with empty seats.

January 27, 1968, wasn’t the best night for a performance. Cleveland was in the thick of a serious ice storm, making travel near impossible. The 30-year-old was about to record the most important show of his career, and no one was there to laugh.

With no other options, Cosby delayed the set until it seemed the last of the stragglers had arrived. The scene that followed is a staple of comedy lore. As he took the stage, a lone woman entered the hall and walked the length of the aisle, the click-click of each step reverberating through the room. Cosby stepped up to the mike, cupped his hands around it, and boomed, “You’re late.” It brought the house down.

The routine Cosby was about to perform—immortalized on the landmark album To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With—represented a turning point in his career. A full 16 years before The Cosby Show debuted, the performance would serve as the blueprint for the themes that would define his work: the father as a loving disciplinarian; the siblings who could switch from screaming at one another to plotting together at the drop of a hat; the confidence that no matter what conflicts and tragedies arise, the bonds of family will hold. In To Russell, Cosby didn’t just find his voice; he tapped into something deeper.

Early Work

Bill Cosby grew up in the projects of the Germantown district of Philadelphia. His family crammed into a tiny apartment, where the four Cosby boys fought for every inch of space. As the years passed, Cosby’s father, a welder, fell into a deep alcoholism. By the time Cosby was 9, his father had abandoned the family for life in the Navy. Cosby’s mom, a maid, worked hard to make ends meet, but as the eldest of the boys, Bill picked up the slack. When he wasn’t shining shoes and pocketing cash from odd jobs, he was tending to his brothers. Once asked whether he had a happy childhood, Cosby responded, “It will be—onstage.”

Cosby had never seriously considered a career in comedy until college, when the part-time bartender noticed that his jokes were improving his tips. He began performing at small clubs, first in the Northeast, then around the country. By 1968, the comic had recorded five albums in five years and made waves costarring on the TV show I Spy. Cosby’s acting debut was especially remarkable. With James Bond films spinning box-office gold, I Spy was NBC’s attempt to capitalize on the action genre. The show followed two undercover agent—one was white and the other, black. The latter made it historic. The show turned Bill Cosby into the first African-American costar in a dramatic TV series, but it did it without making race a focal point of the plot. As Cosby told reporters, “People can see I’m a Negro. We don’t need to say anything else.”

Offscreen was another story. As the premiere approached, NBC execs openly worried about losing sponsorships and affiliate buy-ins. But when I Spy finally aired, only five affiliates refused to broadcast the series. Advertisers didn’t flinch. All of the real-life controversy surrounding Cosby seemed to have little impact on his act. At that time, Cosby was still trading in the sorts of observational humor most stand-ups were doing. His prominence made him a target, however. Within the black community, he was criticized for not confronting racial issues. The truth was, Cosby had made a conscious decision to ignore race and stick to topics that were universally relatable. But not because he wasn’t interested in challenging stereotypes. “A white person listens to my act, and he laughs, and he thinks, Yeah, that’s the way I see it too,” he said. “OK. He’s white. I’m Negro. And we both see things the same way. That must mean that we are alike. Right?”

Story Time

Cosby’s material was evolving in other ways too. To Russell was the first of Cosby’s stand-up albums to fully embrace storytelling and characters over straight jokes. It showcased his talent for discussing his early life. And the album remains the purest distillation of what would become Cosby’s trademark style.

When Cosby finally stepped onto the Cleveland stage and looked into the crowd, he was a long way from the Germantown projects where he’d started. The first words he speaks on the record show him adjusting to the grand surroundings. “Is it all right up top there? Not you guys down here—I’m talking to the $1 people up there.” Cosby was about to perform comedy magic: making an unfathomable experience feel familiar. But first he wanted to make sure everyone had a clear view.

The structure of To Russell is an almost perfect look backward and forward at Cosby’s career. On the first side (originally released as a 12-inch record), Cosby tackles general subjects—sports, human nature, and his young family—over four short tracks. There’s little difference from his previous albums, though he displays an increased confidence. Cosby had worked hard at perfecting his craft, and he’d already won four straight Grammys for Best Comedy Album. Year after year, he’d beat out comedy heavyweights including Don Rickles, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and the Smothers Brothers. With To Russell, he’d continue his streak.

It’s impressive that this album isn’t the best-known or even the most popular of the 21 Bill Cosby has released—that would be 1982’s Himself. Still, critics seem to circle around it. In 2011, Spin declared To Russell number one on its list of the 40 Greatest Comedy Albums of All Time. And it’s had a clear impact on generations of comedians who’ve listened to it as a kid. Ray Romano said it changed his perception of what comedy could be. “This guy just appealed to me, this guy just talking,” Romano said. “It wasn’t setup and punch line; it wasn’t jokes—this seemed more organic to me.” From Chris Rock to Jerry Seinfeld, there are few comics who don’t cite Bill Cosby as a hero or, at the very least, an influence. And much of that can be traced back to the second half of To Russell.

Almost twice as long as any other bit Cosby recorded, the nearly 27-minute title track is as much a one-man play as it is a stand-up routine. Cosby performs the dialogue between him, his brother, and his father with nearly no commentary or asides. He masterfully sets up the apartment, a two-bedroom in Philadelphia public housing: “walls so thin you could hear a fly in the other room crawling on it.” He introduces his parents, building up his father as a huge, intimidating character before setting the scene: “the bedroom, pitch-black. There’s a small bed with two brothers in it. They’re both sleeping in what once was a crib. They’ve both outgrown the crib, the sides have been taken down. Now it is a bed.” It’s clear his family is poor, but that’s merely a small detail in the greater story Cosby sets out to tell.

The story he focuses on is instantly relatable: two young brothers forced to share a small space, bouncing between scheming together, lying to each other, and outright battle. When Cosby punches his younger brother in the eye, he quickly shifts from antagonist to friend, offering to rub it until it feels better. But when his brother threatens to tell their father, Cosby makes it clear: Russell fell out of the bed. Nobody hit anybody. It’s a perfect encapsulation of what it’s like to be a kid, trying to balance budding empathy with an inherent sense of selfish self-preservation—especially when it comes to avoiding the wrath of big, scary dad one room over, the same dad who threatens to “come in with the belt” if they don’t keep quiet.

At the mention of that belt, before the audience has a chance to get uncomfortable, Cosby breaks character, confiding that “we had never seen the belt, but we had heard about it. The belt was nine feet long, eight feet wide, and it had hooks on it, and it would rip the meat off your body if it ever hit you.” Cosby makes it clear that while dad might yell, he was all bark—the perfect comedic aside.

Talking about being a kid and getting in trouble sounds easy. Anybody can do it because everyone’s been there, right? But Cosby’s casual tone and the universal subject matter are deceiving, hiding an incredibly nuanced act that turned the experience of a poor, black, inner-city child into something familiar.

In the years to come, the depth of Cosby’s intention surrounding race would become a hidden hallmark of his work. While filming The Cosby Show, he employed a psychiatrist to ensure that his show tackled important issues without promoting negative stereotypes. He often replaced references to schools like Oberlin or Yale with Morehouse or Howard to put a spotlight on the nation’s finest black universities. And he filled the screen with references to African-American culture—from the art on the walls to the
theater veterans and jazz musicians whom he worked into the plotlines—all in the hopes of subtly shifting America’s views on race. In the process, Cosby became an ambassador for something bigger than just the black experience. As Karl Rove, an unlikely spokesman for The Cosby Show, told Fox News, “It wasn’t a black family. It was America’s family.”

For Bill Cosby, that carefully plotted trajectory traces back to one album. “This guy just talking” is what made To Russell a classic. More than the controversy or subject matter, what it truly showcased was a comedian hitting his stride and moving beyond what was expected of a stand-up. It was Bill Cosby proving that sometimes the funniest comedy is the simplest: a well-told story that everyone can relate to.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]